“The girls here are all sluts man, is it any better at Rhodes?”. I overheard this question on Jammie plaza last year. The unidentified dudebro essentially ruined my lunch and made me vow to continue hiding out in the postgraduate corners of this institution. Against my better judgement, I continued to take tea breaks on those pigeon-infested stairs. One day, I came across a poster promoting UCT’s netball team. It was basically a full-blown shot of several pairs of disembodied legs with the catchphrase “UCT netball team revealed”. Strange I thought, whenever I see a poster that concerns the rugby team their legs are attached to the rest of their bodies. A few days later, walking back to the dingy postgrad labs, I noticed another poster. This one was advertising a College House party. In the bottom right corner it said ‘R 20’ and underneath that ‘Puss ‘n Pint.’
I’m not the only one that continuously bumps into UCT’s culture of casual sexism. The First Year’s introduction to life in a campus residence seems to be a training ground for misogyny. A recent Facebook post that popped up on my timeline spoke of the questionable war cries sang by members of some of the male residences. Apparently, in recent years, the Smuts Hall boys sang that they could go to Fuller House and get some free vagina…And they sang this to the Fuller girls. Also, the Kopano boys had been heard listfully wishing that women’s buttocks were like buns.
Opening up the latest edition of SAX appeal, the editor started his letter with the sentence “Nabeel you’re going to get all the bitches”. It’s satirical social commentary they said. Sian Ferguson, UCT alumnus and current Rhodes student, tweeted “good satire should make the oppressor feel uncomfortable, not the oppressed”. The common denominator in all of the above examples is that a group of people that are often socially, politically and economically marginalised due to their gender are thrown under the bus for the sake of humour.
“When we live in a world where street harassment is just a normal part of life it sets up a culture where even worse things happen behind closed doors.” These were the words attached to a piece of street art whose image made its way around social media a couple of months ago. The same goes for casual sexism. When you create an environment that is accepting of gross objectification of women then you are fuelling a culture that will ignore the violence committed against them. If we’re all just skanks, sluts, hoes and bitches then what happens to us is inconsequential – we had it coming anyway.
I wonder if the unidentified dudebro from the beginning of this article is aware that the language he uses comes straight out of the mouth of a sex offender. Words that demean women because of their sexual past/activities are always the first port of call to rationalise what they’ve done. Policing women’s sexuality allows for a social space where they get blamed for sexual crimes committed against them. If you think our worth or respectability is determined by how much sex we are or aren’t having or the amount of clothing we wear then those will be the first questions that come up when you’re trying to determine whether an act of sexual violence has happened or not.
Being on a campus where judging women’s sexuality is part of everyday conversation means we don’t ask important questions. We don’t ask why we’re not sure of the procedure/policy of reporting sexual assault and sexual harassment on campus. We don’t ask why we don’t know the statistics of how many of these incidents occur on campus. We don’t ask why DISCHO, the body in charge of dealing with these cases, is underfunded and understaffed. We don’t ask these questions because we’re too busy blaming women for going about their lives the way they see fit. We don’t ask because we don’t really care. When women are only vaguely human – owners of body parts we mock and objectify – then why should we?
I moved to Harfield Village in April last year. For a little village that basically lies between two roads (Imam Haron and Kenilworth Road) this place has a lot of issues.
During the time I’ve lived here I’ve witnessed two domestic violence assaults in the street whilst others walked by. The first, described here, was in June and when I called the police, they didn’t respond. On many occasions since I’ve since seen this couple still walking the streets together, their faces set in grim determination. My heart breaks a little every time.
The second, described briefly in the first, second and last stanzas of this poem, happened in September and resulted in the most drawn out interaction with the Claremont police station a person can ever imagine. Suffice to say: they didn’t have the right documents, didn’t want to take a statement, tried to put her in the back of the van with her abuser, refused to open a case, told her she’d never report, didn’t have a printer to give me a copy of my statement, lost my statement, made me give my statement again at another station, lost that somehow, and never really resolved the issue of the failure to give people copies of their statement several months later. This attack was also witnessed by two builders, less than five metres away from the couple, who did nothing, and then verbally abused me the next day for shouting at them for doing nothing. ‘Who the f**k did I think I was to ask them to stop him from hitting her?’ Um, a human being.
Also during this time I have witnessed an elderly white man set his dog on two young black women walking back from Rosmead Spar one evening. The dog viciously barked at and attacked the screaming women before the old white man gently whistled and it ran into his property. He walked in, no sound at all, while the women were left to recover their wits. When I confronted him about why he had done this and had not apologised to the two ladies, his response was ‘I didn’t see any ladies.’ I called my councillor, Mr Kempthorne, who suggested that I read the animal bylaws to see if the old man had done anything wrong (in general, I think this was probably something he should have known, and also general racism isn’t in the animal bylaws, but anyway). In fact, this angry old white dude had infringed by having a dangerous dog without a leash walking around so I delivered a copy of the bylaws, highlighted, to his mailbox, and Mr Kempthorne also asked his office to send someone to talk to the man. Despite my angry eyeballing of his house whenever I walk past, I have seen no more of this racist white man and his dog. But I’m sure he’s still in there.
Also during this time I have been called to a community meeting to discuss ‘security concerns’ where it was clear some form of collusion between the village association and a major security service provider had happened, and where community protests at the exclusion of smaller service providers were met with shut downs from the Chairman of the HVA (but only after he’d asked us if we wouldn’t mind giving a donation because he’d actually spent quite a lot of our annual fees on hiring the venue and the sound equipment). As those of us who thought this meeting a laughing stock walked out, we were threatened with the idea that ‘if we didn’t do something now crime would only get worse.’ A week later, after making the news for this general circus, the security tender was revised, and somehow they all managed to work together in a non-collusive way to protect us all. For a small monthly fee.
So, if what happens outside the houses of Harfield is anything to go by, it is a pretty complicated place full of racism, security threats, inefficient policing, domestic violence, and a bunch of white dudes making decisions for all of us. If that isn’t bad enough, let’s explore what happens inside the homes of Harfield. The easiest way to do this, is to go online.
A few months after living here I was alerted to the existence of the Harfield Village Association closed Facebook Group. Whilst I thought the assault of Cynthia Joni nearby was enough of an example of the racism, classism and sexism that prevails in this community, I was not fully alerted to the unashamed commitment to these beliefs until I encountered this ill-moderated page. On this page, ostensibly set up so the members of Harfield can talk about the community, build community projects, and share information about great service providers in the area, things only get worse. It appears that in fact, inside their homes, Harfield Villagers (or at least some of them) are even more racist and offensive than they let on outdoors. A summary sentence would be: ‘non-white’ is still a category of person for these people.
Examples include alerting other villagers when there are ‘non-whites’ in the area who are not expected to be there (this of course doesn’t happen if those ‘non-whites’ are gardening, cleaning, taking away rubbish, within strict areas, so you can see which house they belong to, in which instances the village welcomes them) or coming up with creative solutions to homeless people asleep on the pavement (see this post, where a suggestion includes ‘let’s tar over them’). This is also a site to sex-worker spot, and to alert other villagers to the general deterioration of the social fabric as referenced by the presence of women making a living (I saw one having sex in the park! says one resident). When I proposed a community discussion on the topic of sex work, of course the resident who had started the whole complaints process said she wouldn’t come (what if she had to realise they were humans!??!). In addition, when the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce approached the Kenilworth councillor to discuss the issue, he refused to engage citing that ‘sex work is a crime’ and we must bring the full force of the law down on sex workers (as an aside, I don’t know any sex workers who work in areas where there are no demands for their service. But I digress..). If you’re interested in supporting the human rights of sex workers, there is a protest march on the 20th to his office organised by SWEAT (Tuesday 20th January, meet at Wynberg Magistrates court at 9am).
The Harfield Village Association page allows what can only be seen as values antithetical to constitutional ones to flourish, unmoderated and without recourse. It should have a tagline ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter here’.
At a feminist meeting group the other evening friends and I discussed how the use of social media allows us to curate our realities – we follow people who are often of the same beliefs as us, we google search only things that reinforce our particular world view, we unfriend those Facebook friends who say things we don’t agree with, and essentially what we end up doing is living in a bubble where people are either as liberal or conservative as we are. We begin to believe that most people think like us. This is dangerous because it means we withdraw from spaces where our views are different, and we begin to lose our skill for arguing for the values we hold dear.
The Harfield Village Association page is one place where this appears completely true. As it becomes more an more a site for white middle-class people to voice and echo disdain for anyone other than them, the more liberal members of the area exit, and join the other page ‘The Harfield Youth League.’ This leaves these racist, sexist, awful people to pat each other on the back for a job well done and to continue with their diatribes of exclusion. This leaves them thinking that they are in the majority when they’re inside their homes and this mentality can only spill out onto the streets. I think it’s time for those of us who left the page emotionally scarred and exhausted to take a breath and dive back in (if they’ll accept our request) because there is nothing more true than this quote:
“Silence in the the face of injustice is complicity with the oppressor” Ginetta Sagan
Perhaps it was the decided lack of content or reality displayed by President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address last week that allowed for picking on Thandile Sunduza, MP, to become the country’s favourite pastime.
SONA is the high theatre of politics: red carpets, swanky clothes, obscure figures and even more nebulous promises. This year was no different – save in one crucial aspect. South Africans participated in the character assassination of a female MP, who happens to seven months pregnant, with such ferocity that Sunduza landed up in hospital due to the emotional torment she suffered at the hands of internet trolls and serious newspapers alike.
I have seen various arguments attempting to mollify the sheer horrific impact that this has situation had. They have all, in various ways, attempted to justify and underplay what this was: the objectification and denigration of a woman for how she dressed. Had Sunduza not collapsed and had the life of her unborn child not been threatened, I wonder whether the same people would have attempted to blithely justify their mob-mentality in attacking her so. But, for those of us who monitor these things, attacking a female politician for anything other than how she does her job is commonplace in South Africa’s political discourse.
Some of the more amusing arguments I have seen have included: (a) that she was being criticised for her choice of fashion against an objective standard – not that she was female; and (b) that being an MP means she is expected to set an example and her choice, which was an allegedly poor one, made criticising her fair game.
The first argument is flawed on two grounds.
Firstly, the objective standard is hardly objective like all. As I wrote in an article about whiteness and excellence, our understanding of what is acceptable and what isn’t is as a result of socialisation and prevailing dominant cultural attitudes. These cultural attitudes are not value-free: they are as a result of complex power relations which shape our views on things like rights, culture and even fashion. That a ‘fat’ woman should not wear something ‘figure-hugging’ is as a result of the hyper-marketised projection of only people ‘in shape’ being allowed to wear such clothing. That in previous times, women ‘with curves’ were considered as being desirable and encouraged to show off their curves – and tin women were looked down upon – is indicative of how fickle, and thus unreliable, these ‘standards’ are.
This also covers the pithy argument that she must set an example. In any case, if we were going to criticise her for anything, shouldn’t we be focusing on her track-record and performance in Parliament as opposed to whether her dress fit her? If we are trying to set examples, this episode basically tells young women that they must be seen and heard to say and do the right things and they’ll be okay: dare to be different and you’ll be crucified. Imagine how this is viewed in hindsight. On the occasion that the biggest policy speech was being made in our political year, a few months before the election, most people were frothing at the mouth over how a largely-unknown MP looked. So much for wanting to create a new generation of female leaders in South Africa.
Second, the fact that she is a woman cannot be separated from the criticism levelled at her fashion choice. While I loathe essentialisation of this kind, this inseparability comes about in two respects.
On one hand, no man would ever be subjected to this kind of scrutiny. Even if they were, it would be transient at best. Women seem to be in a special class: that we can criticise them for what they wear because women are concerned with fashion and that makes it okay. Actually, women should not mindlessly be associated with fashion. Like with everything, some care and others don’t. Similarly, if we create fashion to be reserve of women, what does it say about a fashionable or fashion conscious man? That he is womanly? Hmm, think not.
On the other hand, the aggressive way in which Sunduza was belittled is representative of the wider societal problem we have with women in South Africa. It is no coincidence that women are the most disempowered and the most brutalised: we live in a society where women are treated as the lesser, inferior beings and where we – as men but also as a society – can treat them as they wish. For all our lip service to the Women’s march of 1955 and 16 days of activism, we spend a lot of time letting women know where they belong: at the bottom of the pile. It may be hyperbolic of me to suggest that Sunduza’s treatment is in the same vein. Perhaps. But it symbolises how even if we don’t hit women physically, we continue to allow them to be broken down in other ways as well. We objectify them in the worst way.
I hate to take on the role of moraliser-in-chief. But something has to be said about how Sunduza was treated. For the harsh criticism that she was subjected to is not only about her. It is about how we view and treat women in politics and in general. South Africans should take a long hard look at themselves and realise that we have no right nor place to judge. Certainly not in the way that it transpired nor over what we all got worked up over. We deserve better. And so does Sunduza and countless other women.